Conflicting Claims About Terrorists’ Use of the Internet
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
The recent headlines were enough to concern even the most cynical reader. “Terrorist groups recruiting through social media,” blared the headline at the CBC’s website. “Social Media Gave Terrorist Groups Second Wind,” read the report at pixelsandpolicy.com. “Terrorists making ‘friends’ on Facebook,” topped the Digital Journal story, underscored by an image of a masked person brandishing an automatic weapon.
Why all the alarm? It turns out these and many similar stories were all prompted by a new study by University of Haifa communications professor Gabriel Weimann. In it, Wiemann asserts that “…90% of terrorist activity on the Internet takes place using social networking tools,” a claim also previously made by researcher Evan Kholmann. That terrorists were using the Internet took no one by surprise; that nearly all of their activity takes place in the relative open of social networking did.
“As we know from marketing, there’s a distinction between push and pull,” Dr. Weimann tells us:
“The pull strategy means you wait in your store and wait for the customers to come, and the push strategy means that you start pushing your product to the customers by knocking on their doors. When it comes to terrorism online, they used to apply a pull strategy; waiting in chat rooms for supporters, interested people, and members of the group to join in. Today, using the social networks, they can actually come to you. That is, using the social nature of Facebook, a page opens to another page, and so on. Friends and friends of friends, like widening circles, all become a huge social web. They can use all that by getting only the first to post the messages they want.”
In Weimann’s view, terror groups have three goals for using the web: communication, coordination, and recruitment. And it’s this last goal – finding new members willing to take arms for their cause – that causes him the most alarm.
“If you’re a student, or you’re a journalist preparing an article related to a terrorist group, and you use Google search in a very naive way, you may very likely hit on a website which was posted or created by terrorists, without even knowing it. If you’re an alienated Arab or Muslim living in Europe or North America, and you’re just looking for companion, someone who shares your loneliness and you’re looking for social bonding, you may end up with terrorists online without even knowing it. This spread of online propaganda is done in a very smart, concealed way so that sometimes very naive populations may be seduced and tempted.”
“That is not a well-founded fear,” counters Dr. William McCants, a Middle East and terror researcher at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) outside Washington. “The most they’ve been able to do is perhaps steal some credit cards and blackmail some people, which would definitely be a concern, but it’s not as if they’re going to shut down a power grid anytime soon,” he says. “It’s really a coordination tool, and much less a recruitment tool.”
McCants readily admits that terror groups are trying to use the web for propaganda purposes. The problem, he says, is that they’re just not reaching their target audience.
“If you look at the (the Somali Islamist group) Shabab’s Twitter feed, most of their followers are DC area analysts. They’re not youth that are interested in the movement. We haven’t seen the numbers that would substantiate people saying there are wide swathes of youth who are joining up as a result of reading propaganda online. The numbers of recruits are quite small, estimates both by militants aligned by Al Qaeda and by outside researchers (are) that only .00001 % of people who look at propaganda actually decide to take up arms on behalf of Al Qaeda. That’s a vanishingly small number.”
So are terrorists winning or losing their wars in the social networking realm? Many researchers say that’s simply the wrong question. “Terrorists use the Internet just like anyone else. They use it to communicate, to share ideas, to share tactics and seek out new followers,” says McCants. “I think the Internet is particularly effective for finding like-minded people and coordinating with them. But I am very skeptical about its utility in generating new recruits.”
Former CIA case officer, and now author, Marc Sageman, sees a landscape composed of fewer disciplined organizations like al Qaida, and more “self-recruited wannabees (hopefuls)” operating alone with only one or two other trusted associates. These solo actors may then likely turn to the Internet primarily for information: how to construct bombs, monitor security force movements or other tactics honed by jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this would only happen once the individual had decided on a terrorist course.
Researcher Kholmann, however, sees the web becoming an ever more potent tool for “soft” psychological warfare – militants boasting of accomplishments and creating the aura of a successful group that others may want to join. For example, while he was alive, American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki preached heated inducements to jihad from his base in Yemen. His sermons were fiery, exciting, and in English, the language of Colleen LaRose of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. In time, Colleen became infamous by her new adopted character “Jihad Jane,” and was eventually charged with conspiracy to commit murder and support of terrorists.
It’s those stories, even as few as there are now, that Gabriel Weimann focuses on.
“We have to react. We can’t leave the stage open to the bad guys. There are many ways to fight back but first of all we must be aware of it. We must be aware that online we are now fighting a new type of terrorism. It’s a new type of arena, a new type of war in cyber-space. For this type of war we need a new type of soldiers and weapons. It’s not tanks and it’s not explosives and airplanes and so on. What we need are experienced people who can…either block access to those websites, and can penetrate social networks and post alternative messages and try to compete with the terrorist scenarios of doom, death and destruction with a message of hope, peace and togetherness.”
But CNA’s William McCants says it’s less about war and weapons, and more about understanding the limitations of the Internet:
“I think those terms are the wrong way to think about it. They are not using the Internet as a weapon, that just has not been borne out anywhere. The most they’ve been able to do is perhaps steal some credit cards and blackmail some people, which would definitely be a concern, but it’s not as if they’re going to shut down a power grid anytime soon. It’s really a coordination tool, and much less a recruitment tool.”
Whatever the most accurate view, it’s a fair bet that as long as we have terrorists operating in the real world, they will find their way to cyber-space as well.